Everyone loves education
All the candidates are speaking out on this favorite national issue - but they're not always taking the stand you'd expect.
It may look like politics as usual, as presidential hopefuls run their education programs through the early primaries of the 2000 race. Democrats promise to spend more on schools; Republicans pledge to crack down on meddlesome federal bureaucrats.Skip to next paragraph
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There's a language on school reform that's infusing thinking in both parties - the demand to make public schools demonstrate that students are making progress.
Gains in the number of poor and minority third-graders who can read gave Democrats like Bill Clinton and Republicans like Texas Gov. George W. Bush a platform to seek national office. The issue didn't spring from a Washington think tank or polling agency. Rather, it has filtered up into national politics from some 15 years of reform in the states. And it's starting to jog traditional partisan stands on education.
For some Republicans, it's meant muting traditional election-year calls for abolishing the Department of Education and coming up with positive ways Washington can improve schools.
Meanwhile, Democrats find themselves debating the viability of vouchers that provide public funds for children to attend private or parochial schools. They're an increasingly popular conservative strategy for enhancing parental choice, but one that has been taboo for Democrats because they could jeopardize key support from teachers unions.
For decades, Republicans have used opposition to federal control as a template for any education strategy. Education is a local issue, and the less federal involvement, the better, they said.
Besides cutting strings on federal aid, Republicans have long urged axing the US Department of Education, which they view as a payoff to the National Education Association, the No. 1 teachers union, for its early support of Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976. (Members of teachers unions still accounted for 1 in 5 delegates at the 1996 Democratic National Convention.)
Yet the GOP front-runner, Governor Bush, not only would preserve the Department of Education, he would assign it more responsibility. He also defines a new federal role in reform: ensuring that public schools use some $8 billion in federal aid to poor children effectively. Schools that receive federal aid should be required to test their students, he says. Failing schools that can't show improvement would forfeit their federal dollars. These funds (about $1,500 per child) would be turned over to parents to spend on tutoring or an alternative public or private school.
Republican rivals Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, John McCain, and Alan Keyes call for curbing Washington's role in schools. But the idea that Republicans need a positive national record in education is gaining ground among GOP lawmakers.
"Interest in education among Republicans in Congress is at an all-time high, whereas at one point they shied away from the issue or only talked about it when they wanted to abolish programs," says Nina Shokraii Rees, education analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation and an adviser to GOP politicians, including Bush.
For Democrats, the accountability challenge showed up in an unprecedented debate over private-school vouchers early on in the campaign. Former US Sen. Bill Bradley defended votes in favor of voucher experiments to test whether the concept was viable. Vice-President Gore attacked vouchers as a drain on public resources. By last week, Senator Bradley was saying they weren't "the answer to the problems of public education."
Gore's own proposal is a record $115 billion in new spending, including bonuses for states and school districts that commit to improving poor schools and testing new teachers.
"Bush sees the need to increase accountability for student achievement. What he's not doing is putting money on the table to help schools do a better job. Gore provides the money, but he isn't demanding accountability for student results. That won't get you very far either," says Amy Wilkins, policy analyst with the Education Trust in Washington.